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‘First Wives Club’ delivers the songs and stars, but the new musical is still looking for its heart

Submitted by on Mar 14, 2015 – 11:17 am

First wives sing 'I'm So Lucky,' but they don't really mean it in this Broadway-bound musical remake of the iconic film. (DJ Pierce)

Review: “First Wives Club” a Broadway-bound musical by Holland/Dozier/Holland and Linda Bloodworth Thomason, directed by Simon Phillips, at the Oriental Theatre. ★★

By Nancy Malitz 

“The First Wives Club ,” the movie, was a sweet revenge caper and buddy romp for three of the funniest forty-something women in the business — Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn and Bette Midler. They drolly played caricatures of their own film personas — the loopy mouse, the stuck-up diva and the bossy schlump, all daughters of privilege, educated in the female ivy league class of ’69 and exquisitely served into their unhappily ever afters.

Annie (Carmen Cusack, left), Elise (Christine Sherrill) and Brenda (Faith Prince) commiserate. (DJ Pierce)In the Broadway-bound musical comedy “First Wives Club,” now playing at the Oriental, we catch up with these ladies as they reunite at the funeral of a classmate who ended it by jumping off a high-rise. The survivors sing “I’m So Lucky,” but their own story-book lies soon become apparent.

The mouse is sorry for everything and still puzzled by sex. The diva’s ingenue image is slipping away in a boozy haze of pouting and plastic surgery. And the schlump, well, her mouth’s a Gatling gun with a punishing p.o.v..  All three husbands are dallying, and bent on divorce, and so the dames will soon fall in together to form a D-line.

The film was the pitch-perfect evocation of the giddy early years of women’s lib. The musical is a work in progress that, if troubled, nevertheless has several heady things going for it — a dynamite threesome of leading ladies every bit worthy of the roles they inherited, a Motown-inspired musical score that mixes Holland/Dozier/Holland oldies with their rousing new numbers, and the memory of the original movie, which is beloved by an entire population of a certain Broadway-going age.

Brenda (Faith Prince) sings 'My Heart Wants to Try One More Time' in 'First Wives Club.' (DJ  Pierce)You can’t ask for more than Carmen Cusack as the ditherer Annie, Christine Sherrill as the aging star Elise and Faith Prince as Brenda with the mouth. They are funny alone and together, every which way, and equally brilliant at acting through song. There is also plenty of heart in the emotionally savvy music and lyrics of new numbers such as “My Heart Wants to Try One More Time,” as sung by Brenda, surely a take-away hit. And the “Whirlpool of Emotions,” sung by Annie, whose timidity has been her crippling torment, adds the kind of truthful layering the show still needs.

The problem the Broadway project faces currently is how to more elegantly mash the film and stage art forms. And perhaps more subtly, how to preserve the story’s enormous heart. Director Simon Phillips and book writer Linda Bloodworth Thomason are doubtless still at work. The company seems to be meddling with its first and second act finales, and that’s a good thing, because they give the impression of belonging to another show.

Morty (Sean Murphy Cullen) dons a red wig and puts his girlfriend Shelley (Morgan Weed) front and center in a commercial. (DJ Pierce)That said, much of the satire is well in hand. In one of the film’s memorable comedic turns, Maggie Smith played the dowager who helped the wives set up their con against Brenda’s husband, Morty, and his dull-witted girlfriend — played by Sarah Jessica Parker, who talked volumes, unforgettably, with her fork. In the stage version, the dowager’s gone, but the clueless bimbo is played with gusty physical humor in a memorable comic turn by Morgan Weed. And Patrick Richwood is both clever and campy as gay Duane, the all-purpose facilitator of the wives’ nutty schemes.

Preserving the story’s big heart is a tricky business, but given the sophisticated comedic talent onstage it seems hardly insurmountable. The thing is, we want the gals to grow up as they get even. We don’t necessarily need a blowout; after all, their husbands grow up a little, too. Part of the brilliance of the movie was that these sharp-eyed alumnas, so clueless about themselves and their own predicaments, held each other accountable.

Duane (Patrick Richwood) easily dupes Shelley (Morgan Weed) and Morty (Sean Murphy Cullen). (DJ Pierce)The Broadway-bound version of the story floats in a fantasy bubble. But you do catch a glimpse of the needed reality-tether in the onstage humanity of Brenda’s Morty, the dumpy appliance megastore magnate played so likably by Seán Murphy Cullen. He’s a self-bewildered cheapskate who’s blowing a wad on a Super Bowl commercial so that his ditz of a girlfriend, with whom he is over-the-top infatuated, can say a few lines on TV.

The situation’s bizarre, and very funny, but it soars on the latent affection between the estranged Mr. and Mrs., who have a 13-year-old kid about to be Bar-Mitzvahed and must muddle through.

The other two wives in the story are better off shed of their marriages. But in all fairness, that’s a ditto for the husbands, and there’s both humor and sadness in that. It’s tempting to muse on the evident savior-faire of under-utilized Gregg Edelman and Mike McGowan, who are owed a few more side-splitting lines in defense of that “other” p.o.v.

After all, who’s going to go see this show — only women?

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